Social Conflict Theory and Crime: Definitions and Approach to Deviance

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Crime and Deviance in the U.S. Criminal Justice System: Punishment and Due Process

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:05 Social Conflict Theory
  • 1:07 Deviance and Power
  • 2:06 White-Collar vs.…
  • 4:32 Corporate vs. Organized Crime
  • 6:53 Deviance and Capitalism
  • 8:07 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

In this lesson, we discuss the social conflict approach to deviance, including the connection between deviance and power as well as deviance and capitalism. We also discuss the difference between white-collar and blue-collar crime and define corporate crime and organized crime.

Social Conflict Theory

What social patterns exist between social classes and what problems are caused by the conflict between them? How does social class affect deviance? These are questions asked by sociologists when considering the social conflict theory. Social conflict theory is all about inequality in society. It proposes that laws and norms reflect the interests of powerful members of society. In other words, social order is maintained through competition and conflict, and the 'winners' - those with the most power and the greatest economic and social resources - benefit by taking advantage of the 'losers.' We discuss social conflict theory several times throughout this class, as it is one of the major sociological theories of how society operates as a whole. In this lesson, though, we'll focus on what this theory suggests about deviance.

Deviance and Power

First, the theory suggests that who or what is labeled as deviant depends on who has the most power. The relatively small 'power elite' in our society are much less likely to carry the stigma of deviance than anyone else. Even if they are suspected of deviant behavior, the powerful have the resources to resist deviant labels. Consider a scenario where a rich CEO of a company and a struggling factory worker both commit the same crime. We'll say that they were both caught in possession of illegal drugs. Which person do you imagine will be more severely punished? It's likely that the CEO has the resources to get off lightly or at least to keep it quiet. The factory worker, on the other hand, is likely to receive full punishment and have his criminal deviance advertised.

White-Collar vs. Blue-Collar Crime

The comparison of these two individuals leads us into a discussion about white-collar versus blue-collar crime. These types of criminal deviance get their names from the traditional dress of the person committing that style of crime. White-collar refers to the traditional button-up dress shirts worn by powerful businessmen, usually paired with a tie. Blue-collar refers to the uniforms worn by average workmen in factories and shops.

So, as the name suggests, white-collar crime is committed by people of high social positions, frequently as part of their jobs. White-collar crimes typically don't involve violence; instead, they are generally money-related and include embezzlement, business fraud, bribery, and similar crimes. Many of these crimes go unknown to the public. Blue-collar crime is committed by the average working American. Blue-collar crimes range from violent law-breaking to thievery and are sometimes committed as a way to improve living conditions. They are usually highly visual and are more likely to attract police to the scene.

Again, social conflict theory is all about inequality, so one of the most important differences between these two types of crime is the fact that the punishment for committing them is disproportionate. For example, a more likely criminal scenario involving our factory worker and CEO would involve the factory worker vandalizing a local business and the CEO committing serious fraud to avoid giving up part of his wealth. The factory worker committing vandalism has committed a blue-collar crime. If caught, he would be fined and probably arrested, possibly even spending several months in prison. The CEO committing fraud has committed a white-collar crime. Even if someone calls him into question or he is caught, he would likely only receive a slap on the wrist. A government study found that, as of 2009, those actually convicted of fraud were punished with a fine yet ended up paying less than 10% of what they owed by hiding some of their assets.

Corporate vs. Organized Crime

There are two other types of crime that run parallel to white-collar and blue-collar crime but are committed by entire organizations instead of just individuals. Corporate crime refers to illegal action by a company or by someone acting on its behalf. It ranges from knowingly selling faulty or unsafe products to purposely polluting the environment. Parallel to white-collar crime, most cases of corporate crime receive little to no punishment and many are never even known to the public.

There is also organized crime, which refers to illegal goods or services being provided by a business or group of people. It includes selling illegal drugs, fencing stolen items, loan sharking, and more. Most people would probably associate organized crime with the mafia. While the mafia is a good example, they are not the only criminal organizations. Organizations that commit organized crime differ from other businesses in their heavy regular involvement in illegal activities and their almost routine use of bribery and violence. Parallel to blue-collar crime, those who have fewer legitimate opportunities are more likely to participate in this type of crime, and for those who are caught, punishment can be severe.

Let's use our CEO and factory worker again as examples. The CEO is head of a company that frequently dumps hazardous waste into a nearby lake. This example of corporate crime is usually punished through fines and/or restitution. If incarceration is involved, sentences typically involve 12 months or less.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Additional Activities

Theory of Social Conflict Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 1:

When you think about a criminal, what comes to mind? Do you think of white-collar crimes, such as mail fraud, which are committed by people of higher social status, or blue-collar crimes, such as robbing a jewelry store, which tend to be committed by working-class people? If you are like most people, you probably pictured a blue-collar criminal. Why do you think that blue-collar criminals come to mind more easily, and are punished disproportionately to white-collar criminals? For example, does it come to mind more easily because blue-collar crime is more often in the news? Is it punished more because people in power relate better to white-collar criminals than blue-collar criminals, thus punishing the latter more harshly? In two to three paragraphs, write your reflections on these questions.

Writing Prompt 2:

Capitalism is considered the gold standard of economic and political systems in many powerful countries in the world. When a person or group of people protest in some way against the status quo of capitalism, society often feels threatened and the protesters are labeled deviants. Protests, however, have been powerful agents for change throughout history. Write one to two paragraphs about a protest in which society has felt threatened and the struggle the group faced fighting the established order. For example, the women's suffrage movement was considered as deviant for a long time, conflicting with society's norms and standards, and took decades to upset the status quo before achieving victory with the 19th amendment.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account